Inexperience is the new Competency?

Past experience is often considered to be a proxy for future performance. After all, when there is no single perfect way to forecast someone’s future performance, the best you can do is to look at the past track record and extrapolate it! However, experience will only tell that if the given person were to undergo similar experience once again, would they achieve similar results? But, how do you know that experience is not really getting in the way of future success?

Last week, I was chatting with an old friend over lunch where our conversation, incidentally, drifted to what really makes someone take on unknown challenges, like startups. He was part of a startup for last few years that made, through a lot of hard work and a bit of luck, a decent exit and he had recently taken up a ‘regular’ job. So, adequately credentialed to comment on risk-taking. His view was that while logic and analysis was required to solve hard problems, to solve problems unseen and unknown, one needs to have an emotional perspective and finally the guts to take the call. A rational thinker might overthink several steps ahead and conclude it is not worth taking the risk, or perhaps the outcome might not be as rosy as envisaged. However, someone who is viewing it from an emotional angle will see it differently and eventually the toss-up is between someone who shows exemplary guts rather than chickens out! Maybe that is the reason why young people make better entrepreneurs? The experience perhaps makes us cautious enough not to drop safety guards and recklessly venture into the unknown, while an inexperienced youth, driven solely by the youthful exuberance and unconditional confidence, not only takes unknown challenges head-on – they even go out and hold the muleta to invite the bull!

Paul Arden’s book “Whatever You Think, Think the Opposite” is a favorite of mine because it leaves you with more questions than it even strives to answer. Here is a nice passage from the book –

“Old golfers don’t win (it’s not an absolute, it’s a general rule).

Why?

The older golfer can hit the ball as far as the young one.

He chips and putts equally well.

And will probably have a better knowledge of the course.

So why does he take the extra stroke that denies him victory?

Experience.

He knows the downside, what happens if it goes wrong, which makes him more cautious.

The young player is either ignorant or reckless to caution.

That is his edge.

It is the same with all of us.

Knowledge makes us play safe.

The secret is to stay childish.

So, there you go again – experience seems to be standing in way of performance, and inexperience is perhaps the new capability! However, the world works exactly opposite – we reward experience and shun inexperience. The result is that we end up creating a strong use case for folks who will go any length to ‘demonstrate’ experience. And when there is a demand-supply imbalance, the supply will need to become extremely innovative to create differentiation to carve out a niche for themselves.

Look at this picture I took from a car windscreen – surely this IT professional knows his business and doesn’t need a his resume – he pretty much wears it on his windscreen, and just a glance at his windscreen is enough to send shivers down other job applicant’s spines! What does it tell about the ‘experience’ of the individual? Well, I don’t know about you, but one thing it does tell extremely well is that our friend is very well-experienced in changing jobs. However, not sure if you want to hire someone with those skills and give him yet another chance to demonstrate or possibly hone his skill further!

Of course, we all change jobs – in fact, we all need to change jobs! After all, of what possible use is the freedom and flexibility of being able to decide one’s own destiny if one doesn’t exercise it? I am not against it as long as one is able to convince others that they are not just being honey-bees sucking the nectar off flowers, but are actually going to be around a little longer and hopefully, make some small contributions while they are there. However, how does such job-hopping make someone stand out as ‘experienced’ and hence better-qualified for a new job? The problem again is that we have over-rewarded such promiscuous behavior because that, to us, means rich experience which loosely translates to future performance. If only that was half true!

 

And if you look at this old soldier, don’t you get this feeling – my goodness, someone get a drink for the old chap! Now, I have the highest regard for soldiers – they protect us from bad guys when you and I get to stay in warm comforts of our homes. They lay down their lives when you and I won’t be willing to even step up the courage and face up street rowdies. However, my point here is on how many medals does one need to command respect about one’s experience?

He must be carrying a lot of metal on his chest, and what social approval or recognition is he seeking anymore at this age? Does he still need to prove a point? I am sure those you know him don’t care anymore how many kilos of metal he is lugging around, and for those who don’t know him – well, does it even matter?

Once I was leading a complex hi-tech product. We were building a core router. Not a run of the mill product, but a really complex pieve of hardware and software that powers your network. I had to build a team of 100 development engineers – and staff it in 3 months! To build a team of that many development engineers in such a complex technical domain is a challenge to say the least – not just in Bangalore but anywhere in the world. I took the challenge and hired a set of technical leads – none of whom had any idea about core routing. Not because I got a kick out of it, but simply because there was no one with required skills and instead of waiting forever, I did what I had to do – hire the best talent from other technical domains, like switching, network management, embedded software, etc. and took them through grueling self-learning in a 5x compressed schedule. In just a matter of few weeks, we started seeing results that were encouraging for us to move to the next stage of our seriously uphill battle. One thing I have learnt in staffing large teams is that you can’t have all Einsteins in a large team. You will have to consciously make hard decisions and take calculated risks if you ever want to make progress. I was going on with my hiring for the development team but still woefully short of the ‘target’ to get the project going. Suddenly skies opened up and I was made the ‘generous’ offer of taking in new college grads, so affectionatele known as ‘freshers’ in our part of the world. They were M Tech graduates but without any work experience. I was ‘required’ to take ~20 of them because as a company, we had the campus hiring program and we all needed to absorb them in our teams. I like having ‘freshers’ in my team because they bring the endless energy, daring and teamwork that simply injects new life in any team. Knowing that I was in a precarious situation, I decided to ask for double that number of grads because they were simply available to me! They were there literally the next day! My challenge was to now ‘train’ them – and who were the trainers – the folks who had learnt the subject just a few weeks before them! Well, to cut to the chase, we soon lined-up all the ducks and after six months, we were finally system testing the product – just as per the schedule. There were other challenges in final integration, but not because of taking ‘inexperienced’ folks. In fact, it anything, we had cruised to that stage only because 40% of the contributions had come from inexperienced brainpower in my team. Today after a decade, most of them have moved on to become young budding successes with a lot of potential for kicking even bigger successes! Moral of the story – bet on inexperience, they bring a lot of experience!

So, there you have it. The future is unknown. We have no reasonable clue how tomorrow’s problems will be. If all we do is take up yesterday’s experience and hire based on an assumption that tomorrow’s problems will be a linear extrapolation of them, we are blissfully ignorant of what lies ahead and perilously close to extinction. The other day I was chatting with my teenage son who wants to be an architect. His question was – why should he study biology? My response was – if you want to be an architect, you will be making houses with materials that are yet to be created and technologies yet to be invented. I made a bold assertion. I said – in my view in next 15-20 years, the houses will be made of natural plants and trees that will allow a ‘grow as you go’. For example, you will make a two bedroom house when you are a young family. Now you know that you will need two more bedrooms in next ten and fifteen years respectively. So, you will actually start ‘growing’ them for the next couple of years and just when you need them, those ‘rooms’ will be ready! How about that for a futuristic fantasy? But, seriously, think about it a few times and suddenly it doesn’t sound so unrealistic anymore. Does it? I could conjure it up only because I am unexperienced in both these disciplines – architecture and biology :).

Are you carefully grooming your inexperience as the new capability?

4 thoughts on “Inexperience is the new Competency?

  1. Vikas Goel

    I was one of the “freshers” and hence can relate to this article 🙂 

    While “Inexperience” brings in energy, fearlessness & courage to the team, equally important is the “experienced” leadership that this team can trust and just focus on end-goal !

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